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Valedictorians: Who needs them?

A commencement kerfuffle at Eagle Rock High School serves as a reminder that schools might want to rethink the tradition of selecting a top student.

July 03, 2012
  • North Hollywood High School's valedictorian celebrates after giving a speech during graduation ceremonies.
North Hollywood High School's valedictorian celebrates after giving… (Los Angeles Times )

The difference in grade-point average between the valedictorian and the runner-up salutatorian at Eagle Rock High School this year was small but significant — a full five hundredths of a point, the difference between a 4.5 and a 4.55. Yet the parents of the second-ranked student are outraged, writing to top officials and threatening (what else?) a lawsuit. The mother of Stanford-bound Elisha Marquez complains that her daughter's "sleepless nights" of study were "for nothing," and her father characterizes her second-place finish this way: "You don't want your kid to be a loser."

The parents aren't winning any sympathy from online commenters — or from us — for such silliness. Yet this latest commencement kerfuffle serves as a reminder that schools might want to rethink the tradition of selecting a valedictorian, at least as it's customarily done. We don't say this because parents complain — parents will always complain — or to spare the tender feelings of students who try hard but don't make it to the apex. It's simply that there's less genuine meaning these days to holding the No. 1 spot.

That's because of the proliferation of Advanced Placement and honors courses that bump up students' grade-point averages at most schools, a change that's commonly gamed to maximize GPA. Ordinarily, students receive a 4.0 for an A in a class, a 3.0 for a B and so forth. To encourage students to take more challenging courses, high schools and most colleges began offering an extra point for AP courses, so an A would merit a 5.0. Then high schools started conferring the same extra for honors courses.

POLL: Is the valedictorian an outdated concept?

The key to a high ranking in the graduating class, then, is to get A grades in the highest percentage of AP and honors classes. Not the highest number of classes — the highest percentage. An A in a "regular" class actually brings a student's average down.

As a result, many students avoid those classes — including dance, music and the arts, and extra courses such as Model United Nations. If they want to take French but the school's French department is too small to offer honors classes, they opt for Spanish instead. In the end, the difference between the two top students' GPAs might be a thousandth of a point, and might reflect only the fact that the salutatorian signed up for an introductory class in a third language — on top of just as many AP and honors classes as the valedictorian took.

Schools shouldn't reward lesser students or encourage manipulations that run counter to true intellectual pursuit. Some schools have done away with the valedictorian — and in a few cases, with class rankings altogether. At others, students compete in an essay contest to give the valedictory speech. (The word comes from Latin for saying farewell, not for being the top grade-getter.) Some schools ask their faculty to nominate students for the award, or they borrow from university tradition by honoring all students who surpass a very high bar as summa cum laude. There are many ways to think about changing the valedictory system — always with the assurance that no matter what steps a school takes, some parents are sure to object.

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